Shape Shifting

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Orsa and Winston_tangbro1.blogspot.com

Photo courtesy of tangbro1.blogspot.com.

I was just catching up on my pre-holiday culinary news and came across an Eater post announcing that Chef Josef Centeno has flipped Orsa & Winston, the highest brow concept in his expanding lineup, into a casual yakitori shop called O&W Yakitori-Ya.

Devised partly as a way for him to sneak off for for some time in Japan, the temporary overhaul was also said to be a way to counteract the dearth of seasonal ingredients he needs for his prix-fixe only O&W menu.

Whatever the reason, I love seeing concepts nimbly reinventing themselves in ways that keep diners interested and engaged, rather than trying to execute pre-fab re-brands leaving diners confused and ambivalent.

Kudos to Chef Centeno.

Perhaps this is why he’s quickly becoming the King of Downtown.

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Eating Tech

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I have no doubt that this is an argument I’m going to lose in the end.

Yes, technology is toeing its way into the restaurant world. Tableside credit card transactions. Awesome. iPad wine lists. Nifty. Reservations, loyalty programs and pre-arrival information. Goes without saying. The array of applications within a fairly clunky, old school industry are many (Nation’s Restaurant News created an interesting infographic around just that in 2012).

Ron Shaich, the Founder/Chairman/CEO of Panera Bread, points out in this recent article on the topic: “Improvements in technology have made real the ability for restaurants to provide a more customized and personal experience for guests, creating an opportunity set, I believe, on par with the market opportunities we saw decades earlier to offer better food and warmer “gathering place” environments.”

But when you get beyond Chili’s and Applebee’s and Paneras, have you ever wondered why the upscale casual and fine dining restaurant marketplace overall has been so slow to adapt? I have two theories.

One: This is a damned tough business and it’s hard enough just trying to be successful (i.e., profitable) without needing to innovate in ways that have nothing to do with your core service of producing incredible food–to say nothing of training a staff that turns over monthly, managing shocking rises in food costs, and fighting to keep your patrons from migrating to the 20 new eateries that opened in your neighborhood in the last year.

Two: The dining experience is extremely personal. Sure, people share their experiences digitally, but they don’t experience them that way. Everything great about dining in a sit-down restaurant (that distinction is very important here) is rooted in a personal, TACTILE experience–the progression of tastes and smells, the staff that helps to curate your experience, and the elements of the environment around you. For me, even just the process of reading a menu for the first time (on paper…like I like my books) with a glass of wine in my hand is as important a part of the experience as eating. 

I’m totally guilty of the occasional snatched food photo, but I typically put my phone away when I enter a restaurant. I’m there so I can do something OTHER than check my emails or see if some’s “liked” my check-in. That’s not why I’m there. I’m there to enjoy the reason why these guys are in business. The food. And, other than whatever high-tech gadgets the chef might be employing that night, I feel comfortable in saying that the technology the blogs and trades are talking about building into the diner’s experience isn’t going to make it taste any better. 

 

 

Business Travel, The Ultimate Buffet

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I traveled to San Francisco recently for a conference – Visit California’s Outlook Forum – a kind of “state of the state” chronicling tourism in the Golden State. As with any business travel, I did some cursory online research and quickly booked plane tickets, hotel, even dashed to the mall for a new outfit. What took me the longest in my planning process? Dinner reservations of course.

Sharr Prohaska, a professor of Hospitality, Tourism & Sports Management at NYU, recently contributed a concise little article to Huffington Post about the state of Culinary Tourism. While not revealing much beyond the fact that we’d soon be seeing the results from a new Culinary Tourism research study (courtesy of The World Food Travel Association), she hypothesized about who culinary tourists actually were:

“Are the culinary tourists really the Explorers who are always looking for something new to experience, the Baby Boomers who are seeking and educational or interactive experience, or many of the Millennial who have traveled since they were young and been exposed to exotic foods from around the world and are no longer content with a hamburger?”

Sure. All of the above. But there are hoards of us that squeak in between those categories on a daily basis. We’re the people who, despite whatever work or professional callings may lead us through our lives, food and the experiences that come with it, temper everything we do.

That’s why, long before I knew what time I’d have to leave for the airport or where I’d be telling my shuttle driver to take me, I knew where I’d be eating (Bar Tartine), what dishes I’d likely be ordering (potato flat bread,  green chile fisherman’s stew and farmer’s cheese dumplings) and what others had to say about them (“as good as it gets” and on and on…). I’d seen photos, read maddeningly descriptive reviews and felt like I had an insider’s perspective–all without ever having ever been there before.

The best possible kind of armchair travel these days is spent building your travel plans, one meal, snack or beverage at a time. Surfing has never tasted so good.